The healthcare industry appears to be closer than ever before to adopting standards to support the interoperability of data – an essential first step for the efficient exchange of clinical data. 

This article was originally published on by David Lareau. David Lareau is CEO of Medicomp Systems. 

It’s sometimes easy to take standards for granted, though the absence of certain standards could make life complicated. Consider wall plugs, for example. It’s pretty amazing that regardless of where you are in the United States, most wall plugs can delivery electricity for your phone, lamp or laptop. Can you imagine how inefficient and inconvenient it would be if the wall plugs in your home were different than the ones in your office, or if all hotels and airports had their own unique plugs? 

Easier access to patient data 
By establishing exchange standards, the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services (HHS) says it hopes to make it easier for clinicians and patients to access clinical data. In February, HHS issued proposed interoperability rules that included the recommendation to adopt standardized application programming interfaces (APIs) to facilitate the secure electronic exchange of data. APIs can provide access to clinical data in the same way that wall plugs give consumers access to electricity. By requiring a standard approach for the development of APIs, HHS is paving the way for a standardized method of secure information exchange. 

The adoption of standards is an important first step toward achieving full interoperability. Unfortunately, it’s only a first step and the road to full interoperability is long – which means a considerable amount of work remains. 

The need for useful data 
HHS’s proposed interoperability rules include a recommended standard for sending and receiving data, which is a necessary start for information exchange. However, having an effective mechanism for sharing data does not guarantee that the transmitted information will be in a format that enhances a physician’s understanding of a patient’s health. 

The proposed rules support the idea that good data is essential for achieving value-based care goals. Physicians are empowered to deliver the best possible care when they have the right data appropriately linked with the right patient, and available within existing workflows at the point of care. 

The latest proposed rules fall short on specifics, especially in terms of how to make electronically shared clinical data useful for the end user. 

Unanswered questions 
When introducing the proposed interoperability rules, CMS administrator Seema Verma stressed the need for accessible data that enhances care coordination, yet the proposed rules don’t provide clear guidelines about how this should be achieved. For example, how should a provider format data that is sent to another provider? Should details be in coded lists? How should unstructured free text be shared? Depending on the format, the sender might need to manipulate the data or put details into a codified format. On the receiving end, users may need to sort through pages and pages of data to determine what information is new, what details duplicate existing records, and what items should be accepted or disregarded. 

Also unclear is whether EHR vendors will be required to allow users to incorporate shared records generated by other EHRs. Many EHRs currently don’t support the integration of outside records, which means physicians have to leave their standard workflows to access the clinical records sent from other providers. 

The proposed rules include penalties for providers who fail to share clinical records, but don’t specify what data clinicians are required to share. For example, does a specialist need to send a patient’s primary care provider the patient’s complete record, or is it sufficient to only forward details from the most recent visit? And when a primary care provider sends records to a specialist, should the complete record be transmitted or only the patient’s problem list and medications? 

It’s a long road ahead 
When considering how best to address these and other unanswered questions, HHS leaders must prioritize efforts to ensure data usability. The electronic sharing of patient records is valuable, but only if clinicians have ready access to the right data for the right patient at the point of care. 

David Lareau

By identifying a standard for the transmission of electronic clinical data, we are one step closer to having ready access to clinical data via a standardized “plug”. However, we must be cautious not to create a system that encourages (under the risk of penalties) the dumping of unmanageable volumes of clinical data between providers. To prevent this, HHS must continue identifying standards that keep us moving down the long road to the dream of true interoperability. 

About the author: David Lareau is the chief executive officer of Medicomp Systems. Lareau, who joined Medicomp in 1995, is responsible for operations, strategy, customer success and product management.